Shortcomings of the Emerging Plot

Will Wright
Will Wright bores an audience at the Game Developers Conference.

We have probably all heard the complaint that a game felt like a movie instead of a video game. Echoing this sentiment, a handful of successful developers (Will Wright, for example) has criticized traditional linear story telling in games. Randy Smith, in an interview in “Game Creation and Careers,” describes the difference between embedded narrative and emergent narrative. In the first Thief game, for example, Looking Glass wrote an overarching plot that was presented to the player by cut scenes. This immutable narrative is the embedded part of the story. The emergent narrative is the low level plot, the specifics of what happens throughout each individual mission. By presenting the player with game mechanics that allow him to overcome challenges in multiple ways, Smith argues he is allowing the player to, on some level, write his own story.

The idea that an emergent narrative is as important as or more important than an embedded narrative is misguided (if no one really thinks this and I am attacking straw men, please tell me). I enjoy open ended games and am often in awe of the creative ways a puzzle can be solved in them, but to call this a plot is a grave injustice to any talented story teller. A game like Thief works because the gameplay is fun, not because it presents an interesting story during actual levels. Read this and see how gripping of a tale you find it to be:

Jim woke up when his alarm went off. He went to the bathroom, used his toilet, washed his hands then took a shower. After his shower, he walked to the kitchen and prepared a bowl of cereal. He took the bowl to his dining room table, sat down and began to eat. While eating, the phone rang. Jim stood up, walked to the phone and answered it. Jacky was on the phone, she wanted to tell Jim, in so many words, that they were no longer friends. She hung up and Jim went back to the table, sat down, and continued eating. A horn from the street blared, and Jim, realizing it was the car pool, quickly got into his work clothes, and ran out of the house, leaving his cereal bowl for the maid to clean up later.

Thief game shot
To stab the enemy in the left arm or right arm, this is the question.

To be fair, I could have written the previous paragraph in more interesting language, but I am afraid the results would not be much different. Reading the emergent narrative of a game of the Sims is boring (I have to wonder if Wright honestly believes this is good story telling), whereas playing the Sims is a lot of fun. Emergent narrative has little to do with plot; it is rather an aspect of gameplay.

There are a variety of reasons emergent narrative tends to fail to deliver a good story. In many games it’s due to a lack of emotional interest. We read and watch stories to feel what we otherwise would not have felt. It is obvious that we like to feel happy or excited, but, people often seek to feel depressed or angry (why else would I own Slingblade). A game that presents the emergent narrative choices of running through the front door shooting everything in sight, cutting off the power and getting through the back security door, or dropping in through the skylight, while probably a blast to play (I like that skylight idea), is emotionally boring. It is the difference between Schindler’s List and Double Impact, with the game I’m describing being the latter. Often a developer may be trying for the Hollywood equivalent of a brainless action flick and there is nothing wrong with that, just don’t pretend there is a grandiose plot because the player can decide to walk left instead of right.

But then what about games that feature both emerging narrative and plenty of social interaction? Why is a game like Sims not an interesting story? There are interpersonal relationships, which, in theory, should cause the player to have at least some emotional reaction. Sure, I was a little upset when Jacky ended our friendship, but it’s hard to care too much when the only thing I know about her is she has black hair and responds well when I brag to her. The depth of emotion you can feel for a character is directly related to that character’s depth and character depth is dependent on scripted character traits and personalities. Perhaps I’m picking on the Sims too much, but this ties in with the next reason emerging narrative is unsuccessful at telling a story: a lack of consequences. If Jacky is no longer my friend, then I can simply become friends with Jill instead, or even just invite Jacky over and rekindle our friendship by bragging to her. If I crash through the skylight instead of going into the back security door, I get to see the cool graphics of the glass breaking, but little else changes in this fictitious game. When the developer gives you an open ended game take advantage of the many ways to complete the missions, just don’t expect any change in the embedded plot or a particularly thrilling emerging plot.

Warren Spector
Warren laughs in my face.

So how can we make games not feel like movies? First of all, don’t throw away the idea of emerging narrative, just call it something else and realize that it is an aspect of gameplay and not a replacement for a good story. It requires a lot of work, but I believe the best solution is to design multiple plot paths. A game like Thief doesn’t feel like a movie so it shouldn’t worry about justifying itself by pretending everything you do creates a magical story. A game like Final Fantasy X, on the other hand, which does feel like a movie, could use a few different embedded plot paths. A multi-tiered embedded plot will allow the player to make at least some decisions that actually affect what happens in the story beyond ‘Jim had waffles instead of cereal.’ I only wish Tidus could have decided early on that Blitz Ball was actually a bad thing to build a religion around and after voicing this opinion, got sent on at least one different quest than he otherwise would have. As an added benefit, choices with real plot line consequences add to the gameplay by giving the player the impression that he is in a real, living world where what he does matters.

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